Tunis: During most of October, Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the central avenue of the Tunisian capital and the starting point of the 2011 uprising, hosted many artworks as part of the sixth edition of the Gau Tunis Contemporary Art Festival.
According to Tunisian media, the city’s governor said that Habib Bourguiba “will be devoted to cultural and tourism activities and exhibitions only.” Art fills the famous street where protests are now outlawed.
After a series of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival is back every two years this year as Jaou Photo, a photography and photo-animation edition under the slogan “The Endless Body”.
Lina Lazar, Vice President of the Kamal Lazaar Foundation (KLF), which organized the event, says that the aim of this year’s edition, “was to decentralize the art experience to see how an individual can handle as many works as possible without being confined to the usual white cube space.” “.
“Gaw” has many meanings in colloquial Arabic. Literally translated to “weather” or “atmosphere” it evokes happiness – a sense of lightness of being and a free spirit. It might seem a paradoxical headline given the challenges Tunisia faces. But Lazar believes that art provides a way to examine the pressing matters of the moment in a way that provides joy and camaraderie.
Gao’s central exhibition, Our Time, Our Dreams, is curated by Karim Sultan, Director of the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah. It featured more than 100 images on billboards around the city and on scaffolding located along Avenue Habib Bourguiba.
“In Jaou, we wanted to display things in a random and uncalculated way. So we secured Boulevard Bourguiba, the historic route on which the Arab Spring began and where people put their bodies to the test every time there is anything that needs to be challenged in the country,” Lazar said.
What followed on the street and across town, he explained, was an exhibition focusing on consumer culture using billboards, “as a means of display and a means of communicating with a broader demographic.” They have repurposed hundreds of billboards and dedicated them to images that would normally only be seen in a more intimate environment and “meet the challenge of completely rethinking the business and (our) dealing with it”.
Despite the ban on protests, at the end of October, several street protests were held with Fen Gao surrounding them.
The flow of images interrupted daily life in the capital to offer visitors and residents poignant images that focus on the body and its place in nature and urban landscapes, prompting a moment to reflect on some of the most relevant issues in the world today.
Notable artists included John Akumfarrah, Larissa Sansour, Muhammad Al-Zanoun, Sophia Barakat, Ati Batra Ruga, Amina Kaddous, Amina Minya, Gabriel Goliath and Taysir Al-Batniji.
“The body in all its dimensions was the pivot – something very important during this specific time globally, but even more so in Tunisia after 10 years of the revolution and the failed hopes that came with it and the bodies that were unable to activate it. And bring about the change that everyone was hoping for” Lazar said. “The release was about individual bodies as much as it was about collective, social and political bodies and also bodies that wish to be elsewhere, and reflect the theme of immigration.”
He added, “We tried a lot to organize a form of social experience. A series of photographers and scenarios, in which musicians and choreographers participated, to try to express the narratives of the ‘corpses’ that were publicly shown, adding a performative dimension to the event.”
Other highlights included pop-up exhibitions, including “Collective Diaries” curated by Simon Njami, which asked questions about how we live and think together in the modern world. There was also “A Wake Up Song Mr. President” curated by Andrea Bellini and Lina Lazar, featuring a selection of highlights from this year’s Image and Motion Biennale in Geneva, featuring works by Sophia Almariah and Mandy Harris Williams, among others, and staged at The historic Abdaliah Palace, which has remained unused since extremists attacked a gallery in 2012. The gallery was an attempt to revitalize the space through art.
Art station B719 of AT KLF, located in a rural suburb outside of Tunis, has been the “imaginations” of Myriam Boulos, presenting works for a range of curators, artists and thinkers.
Seminar directed by Stephanie Bailey entitled “What can we learn and do not know when we talk?” It was held at the historic Bourse du Travel and featured speakers such as Simon Njami, Karim Sultan, Khokha Maquiere, Hito Stearl, Mona Kray and others.
“Middle Eastern art plays an important role in capturing the voices of people across the region,” Lazar said.
KLF was founded by Tunisian-Swiss businessman Kamel Lazar, who founded investment banking firm Swicorp. His daughter Lina is now largely running the show. She has been a major promoter of the work of Arab artists for the past fifteen years.
In 2015, KLF hosted a series of talks at the Bardo Museum, which was the site of a terrorist attack on March 15 of that year, when two gunmen attacked the museum, taking museum visitors hostage. 22 people were killed, most of them European tourists.
This year, Gao has worked with more than 165 artists from all over the Arab world and North Africa, of whom more than 100 have worked in the photography gallery located in Rue Bourguiba.
“What was really interesting was how artists have explored the meaning of hope collectively today,” Lazar said. I think the case of Tunisia resonated with American artists as well as with the British and the Lebanese. There has been disillusionment with democratic institutions and processes and (the effort) that societies and states require to reorganize and re-upgrade themselves.”
As Lazar emphasized, it was the performative aspect of organizing such a festival during such a difficult time for Tunisia and the world that gave participants and visitors a renewed sense of ’empowerment’.
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